Reindeer and Rana Roots

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

Say what you will about the Internet, it’s a wonderful resource for genealogy.

I got interested in family history about 15 years ago  after attending a family reunion in Fort Ransom, N.D, and since then I’ve traced my roots back to the 1650s in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  Found a link to  some Finns as well among Swedish ancestors in the area known as the Finn Forest around Lekvattnet, Varmland, but it’s tenuous. Bottom line: I have Viking blood in  my veins, and I’m proud of that. I have a drinking horn and tattoo to prove it.

My biggest genealogy breakthrough came from  a website called Ancestors From Norway, which took me over the pond and put in touch with Norwegian census reports, tax roles and local church and farm histories, some as far back as the 1600s.  By posting on genealogy message boards for specific locales, I also found helpful researchers, as well as distant cousins eager to share family history from overseas in exchange for family information from the USA. Message boards also put me in touch with distant Swedish cousins.

I’d hoped to find family links back to the Viking Age, but the closest I’ve come to that is a weak (non-blood) link by the marriage of a distant aunt some 300 years ago to a man from another family tree with lineage back to the year 800. 

My paternal Viking line is rooted in a Norwegian farm called Vesteraali outside the town of Mo i Rana in Nordland county (formerly known as Helgeland). Vesteraali lies in a river valley known as the Dunderlandsdalen, where the river Ranelva flows southwest from the Saltfjellet mountains and empties into Ranfjord at Mo, about 80 miles below the Arctic Circle. Tax records from 1865

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

and 1875 indicate my ancestors raised reindeer and also kept one horse and a few cows, sheep and a pig or two and planted barley, rye, oats and potatoes in the rocky soil of the Dunderlandsdalen, where the growing season is short but the summer daylight is extensive. I think that the spuds were mainly grown for animal fodder, but I’ve also heard that Norwegian farmers pooled their extra potatoes to distill aquavuit. They also built fishing boats during the winter months and skidded them to market on the frozen Ranelva. Vesteraali is no longer a working farm. It was sold to mining interests in the early 20th century, and it is now under the site of Arctic Circle Raceway. My grandfather was a fifth-generation farmer at Vesteraali. He was in his early 20s when he immigrated to America in 1893 and joined other Rana folk living in or near Fort Ransom, N.D. 

There’s a dead end in my paternal line, which dates back to two brothers, Lars and Jakob Mortensen, born in Rana in the 1690s.  But it’s a fascinating dead end, as the brothers almost certainly descend from a man named Morten. And while data on Morten remains sketchy in the municipal records, there is a Rana folk tale  about a foundling child discovered wrapped in a bolt of cloth purchased by a Rana man  from a coastal trading site in the 1650s. According to the tale, the

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Rana man and his wife adopted the child and had him baptized as Morten, which I’m told was then an uncommon name in the region. For me, the tale provides an element of  immaculate conception for my paternal line. Both my granddad’s parents descended from Morten. Grandpa John’s father was a great-grandson of Jakob Mortensen, and his mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Lars Mortensen. I’ve found other family trees with Lars and Jakob linked to Morten Sølfestra, born around 1629, perhaps in Bergen, but that data is not sourced. According to tradition, Morten was the first resident at Naevermoen, a cotter’s farm in Storli, and he later moved to Mo and owned property at Sør-Mo. 

I come from a long line of farmer/fishermen, including my dad, who was a Fort Ransom tenant farmer when I was born and an avid sport fisher all of his life. I’m the youngest in a generation of Olsons as my dad was nearly 42 years old when I was born, and his dad was 42 when he was born, so I never really knew my granddad. His name was Johannes Möller Olson, or Olssa in the parochial spelling of Rana, son of Ole Jakob Johannessa, who died when Grandpa John was quite young. My dad said Möller, pronounced like Miller, probably would’ve become the family surname if Grandpa had remained in Norway, as the patronymic naming system was then going out of fashion.

Most Norwegians spell Olson with an “sen” rather than “son,” but we’re an exception to that rule.  Don’t know why that is, but it makes this clan of Olsons exceptional in at least one sense.

Mo church, Mo i Rana.

Mo church in Norway, source of many of my family records. (Wikipedia photo)

2 Comments

Filed under Memoirs

2 responses to “Reindeer and Rana Roots

  1. Ray

    Good stuff, Keith. That foundling thing makes for a very interesting story. Ray

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